I first heard someone use the term “politically correct” thirty-five or forty years ago when I was in graduate school.
It was a self-conscious in-group reference at a time those of us who wished to appear sophisticated and well informed had to navigate some tricky social questions. Black or African-American? American Indian or Native American? Can you use queer if you’re not gay?
At bottom, political correctitude is no more than common courtesy. It is polite to refer to people with the terms by which they identify themselves. It is polite to refrain from imposing one’s own cultural expectations and categories on others. It makes sense to acknowledge the reality that we live in a multicultural society. It makes sense for a business whose customers are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and unbelievers to wish them “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at the checkout register. It is a mark of consideration of other people’s feelings. And who could object to being wished happiness?
Quite a lot actually.
Political correctitude, however well intended, is inseparable from liberal smugness. It is parallel to Christian fundamentalist smugness, and people who claim personal access to Truth are almost always irritating. To add to the irritation, political correctitude is also inseparable from class issues. Liberal smugness comes with university education and sophistication (or pretended sophistication) and a whole series of class markers. People who have coffee after dinner instead of people who have coffee with. People who say “nu-cle-ar” instead of “nuc-u-lar.” People who live and work on the coasts rather than in flyover country.
It is, I think, the reaction to liberal smugness that has allowed conservatives to stigmatize common courtesy, as Moira Weigel describes in “Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy” in the Guardian: The attack on the politically correct class suggests that there are “powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language … that there is a set of powerful, unnamed actors, who are trying to control everything you do, right down to the words you use.”
We are left with a double irony: The liberal attempt merely to be polite has backfired, and the reaction to the perceived repression of political correctitude has opened public discourse to vile racist and anti-Semitic statements that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
It appears that it will be some time before we can just get along.